I am often struck by the close correspondence between the eighteenth century in Britain and today. We have media-induced moral panics about the corrupting effects of the Internet and social media on children and other vulnerable groups. Our eighteenth-century forebears had a very similar moral panic. Theirs focused on the terrible effects the many circulating libraries – and the romantic novels they made available – must have on women. We are told looking at sexually graphic images will provoke a wish to act them out. They were told that reading romantic novels would provoke young women – even wives – into illicit affairs and ultimately destroy their moral fibre.
“A circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year! – and depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, they that are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.” (Sheridan, The Rivals)
Circulating libraries began in the 1720s and grew rapidly. Subscription libraries required users to pay a substantial annual subscription for their use. That put them beyond the reach of most people, save the gentry and professional classes. Circulating libraries, on the other hand, were simple commercial ventures, usually open to all who could pay the modest charges on a per-book basis. Anyone who thought they could run one in their town and make a profit could approach specific booksellers and publishers. These would give the budding entrepreneur all that was needed to get started in terms of advice and administration, sell him or her a suitable book stock and keep the new library supplied with the most popular titles thereafter. What were most popular? Why, romantic novels, of course!
Since these library suppliers concentrated so much on popular novels, they soon got much the same reputation as modern publishers of light, romantic fiction for women, like Mills & Boon/Harlequin. They became the butt of intellectual ridicule for specialising in what today would be termed ‘chick lit’ and ‘bodice rippers’. Worse still, such novels engaged the emotions of the reader, not just his – or more likely her – mind. How could this not lead to harmful excitement?
The circulating libraries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also the main source of books read purely for pleasure. That meant they received a still greater share of derision. Didn’t they provide a diet of ‘trashy’ novels, primarily written by and for women? Didn’t they give books to anyone who could pay, even the lower classes? Didn’t they provide a mere indulgence in place of learning or moral improvement? Reading purely for pleasure was itself a recent phenomenon. That women of all social strata should spend a significant amount of time reading for pleasure was a most unexpected and unwelcome consequence.
Novels Provoke Prostitution, Homosexualty … and Earthquakes!
Clara Reeve, an 18th century author, who represented a group of “serious novel-readers” especially concerned for the morals of the young person, made some objections that are just as familiar today – only now they are usually directed at eBooks. She complained at the ‘Novel-writing industry’ that had grown up to keep the circulating libraries stocked with fresh titles. Many of these, she wrote, were churned out too quickly and included all kinds of typos and misprints. Such novels were also all alike. One reviewer expressed surprise that, “there existed no recipe book for romance cookery since the process was so well known.” Such hastily and carelessly written novels themselves proved that circulating libraries provided worthless fiction which was a waste of time.
The criticism poured out by moralists did not stop at the printing, plots or writing style of the popular novels on offer. Much more of it was directed at the supposedly detrimental effects such novels had on readers, particularly women. As the extract from *The Rivals * quoted above suggests, these moralists imagined lady readers – being female and thus weak-minded – would soon move from ‘handling the leaves’ to wanting – and tasting – the fruits. Instead of imbibing the kind of dutiful and moral precepts appropriate to sober wives, novel readers would fill their heads with tales of romance, love and even – Heaven forfend! – desire.
Romantic novels were quite obviously dangerous. They were ‘too full of sex and violence’. They would be ‘disruptive to family life by bringing dangerous ideas and emotions home.’ Indeed, an 18th century Bishop of London went as far as to link the reading of novels with prostitution, homosexuality, and the increasing prevalence of earthquakes!
‘…These Foolish, yet Dangerous Books.’
“Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels. The depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books. I find them on the toilette of fashion, and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter. From the mistresses of nobles they descend to the mistresses of snuff-shops – from the belles who read them in town, to the chits who spell them in the country. I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemima.” (Sylph, 1796)
Here was the reality of women’s life coming into direct conflict with the 18th century ideal of woman as subservient guardian of the home, teacher of children and preserver of moral standards. Those who fell into the moral panic which ensued envisaged hoards of women corrupted by dwelling on stories of unsuitable love, disobedience to male authority and desire for emotional and physical satisfaction in place of stern duty. Such women would then pass these evil tastes and notions on to their children, especially their daughters. Unless books had a proper moral content, focusing on selfless, dutiful service to others, how could they be other than corrupting?
‘Useless to Society!’
Worst of all, novels might contain situations or ideas subversive of the strict standards of behaviour in society some demanded. They might feature unsuitable emotional attachments between beautiful, lower-class heroines and handsome gentlemen. They might suggest love could be more important than social class. They might even feature terrible notions of elopement or disobedience of parental injunctions. Never mind if the plot eventually restored the moral landscape by finding the lower-class heroine was actually the child of a duke, stolen at birth by some dastardly maidservant. The close engagement of the reader’s emotions during the ‘unsuitable’ phases of the story could not be expunged by any trite, moralising ending. It was these dangerous psychological effects, all too likely to trigger imitation, that would insensibly insert wrong ideas about love and life into impressionable minds.
Many proofs were offered of the dangerous effects of such reading. Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu blamed novels for the love entanglements of her acquaintance Miss Hunter, who ran away to Holland with the married Earl of Pembroke. An article in The Weekly Magazine of November 1771 reported that “the lovely Flavia forsook her faithful lover and ended up in London in a tawdry silk gown and petticoat, with a meagre countenance“.
Then, as today, there were calls either to ban such threats to society, or tax them at levels that would remove them from the reach of most people. A letter to the The Gentleman’s Magazine of December, 1789, could have been written by any apoplectic Home-Counties Colonel to the Times today:
“Novels have been long and frequently regarded not as being merely useless to society, but even as pernicious, from the very indifferent morality, and ridiculous way of thinking, which they almost generally inculcate. Why then, in the name of the common sense, should such an useless and pernicious commodity, with which we are over-run, go duty-free, while the really useful necessary of life is taxed to the utmost extent? A tax on books of this description only (for books of real utility should ever be circulated free as air) would bring in a very considerable sum for the service of Government, without being levied on the poor or the industrious.”
Loss of Control
In the end, dislike of novels and circulating libraries was more to do with fears of a loss of male control over female minds than matters of literary taste. The libraries represented the first purveyors of mass popular literature for the female reading public. As a result, they provoked the fears of a society seeing increasingly literate women choosing their own way of spending their leisure time. The negative social impact of circulating libraries and novels for women was soon being compared to that of brothels and gin-shops.
If all this sounds depressingly like The Daily Mail or Fox News in full cry, it should. Just as using a computer, phone or tablet to play games, access social media or Internet content raises fears of activities taking place that parents and society find hard to monitor, so reading allowed people, especially women, to harbour ‘unsuitable’ thoughts and interests internally, beyond the reach of disapproval from male-dominated society.
The 18th century assault on reading novels is best seen, I believe, as embodying the conservative response to many of the threats to their comfortable predilections then arising from wider social transformations. It marked one step on the road that would lead in time to demands for full female emancipation, suffrage and equality of opportunity with men. Worst of all, in the view of its opponents, reading whatever they liked best would let women escape from male control over their lives and minds.
As in all moral panics, before and since, the conservative reaction thus represented an attempt to frighten society at large into actions that would never win approval if considered calmly and objectively.
Blunt, R. (1923) Mrs Montagu, “Queen of the Blues”, Her Letters and Friendships from 1762 to 1800. London: Constable & Co.
Jacobs, Edward (2006). Circulating Libraries. In Davis Scott Kastan (ed). The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Volume 1.
Kelly, Thomas. (1966) Early Public Libraries. London: The Library Association.
Pearson, J. (1999) Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sylph no. 5, October 6, 1796.
Taylor, John Tinnon. (1943) Early Opposition to the English Novel. York: The King’s Crown Press.
Vogrinčič, Ana. (2008) The Novel-Reading Panic in 18th- Century in England: An Outline of an Early Moral Media Panic. University of Ljubljana.
William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.
Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.
For eleven years, Will and his wife lived in the USA, latterly in southern Arizona. This experience sparked an enduring love of the breathtaking beauty of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the history of the American West, especially Native American art and culture. As a result, Will became intrigued by the figure of Coyote: the Trickster God of many indigenous cultures across western states of the USA.
Will’s book of fantasy Coyote stories – in affectionate homage to this powerful archetype of human experience – will be published later in the year.